Friday September 23rd, 2016

Everyone knows the Cubs last won the World Series in 1908. What people often forget is the bizarre episode that helped Chicago win the pennant that season and ultimately prevented their World Series title drought—now nearing 108 years—from being a year longer.  

Late in the 1908 season, the New York Giants and Cubs met with the pennant race in its closing stages. On Sept. 23 at the Polo Grounds, the Giants had a chance to lock up the pennant. 

Enter Fred Merkle. The 19-year-old rookie Giants first baseman was called in as a late replacement for Fred Tenney.

In the bottom of the ninth, the Giants and Cubs were tied at 1–1 with two men on base and two outs. Giants outfielder Moose McCormick stood at third base, while Merkle was the runner on first. Giants shortstop Al Bridwell took the first pitch from Cubs southpaw Jack Pfiester and got the ball past second baseman Johnny Evers for a single into center field. McCormick scored and the pennant appeared to belong to the Giants. Fans stormed out of the stands in celebration as Merkle made his way to the dugout, assuming that the game was over.

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One problem: Merkle never touched second base. 

Evers noticed the error and headed over to beat Merkle back to the bag, which would void McCormick's run for the final out. But this is where it gets even weirder: Evers didn't have the ball, which was hit and lost in the shuffle of people. Some re-tellings of the play say that Giants pitcher Joe McGinnity, who also served as a first base coach that day, tossed the ball into the stands to a fan, who bolted with his new souvenir. In this version of the story, police officers stopped the spectator and the ball made its way back to the field with a throw from Joe Tinker to Evers. The umpires saw Evers on the bag, and Merkle was called out. Charles Dryden, the Chicago Tribune's writer on site, talked to multiple players that day and tallied 18 assists on the final play. 

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Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson, the team's starter that day, said in his biography that he believes Merkle never made it to second base. Merkle claimed he did make it back to second base while Evers was trying to retrieve the ball. 

Due to the lack of crowd control, the umpires ruled the game as a 1–1 tie to be replayed at the end of the season.

What happened next?

Despite having to make up games due to rainouts, the Giants won 10 of their last 15 games to finish with a 98–55 record, which mirrored the Cubs' record for the end of the year. 

They replayed the game, and the Cubs came away with a 4–2 victory to clinch the National League pennant. In a rematch of the 1907 World Series, Chicago beat Detroit to win the 1908 title, the team's second consecutive championship. 

The Cubs have not won a World Series in the nearly 108 years since.

What about Merkle?

Giants manager John McGraw defended Merkle in the aftermath of "Merkle's Boner," pointing out that the team should have won a number of other games that were equally responsible for losing the pennant. But indisputably, had Merkle touched second base, the Giants would have won the National League pennant. 

Merkle developed the nickname "Bonehead" over his 16-year career, which saw him play with the Yankees and Robins (soon to be the Brooklyn Dodgers) in addition to the Cubs. He never won a World Series despite having played in six of them.

In 1950, he made a public appearance at a Giants' old-timers game and received a roaring reception from the fans. He died in 1956.

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